The first thing I learned in yoga was the “proper” breathing. All throughout our life, we have been used to expanding our belly upon exhalation, while sucking in our tummy upon inhalation. In running, or when doing cardiovascular workouts, we are taught to breath in through the nose and exhale through the mouth. In yoga, however, our instructor would say that if you want to learn to breath properly, observe a baby. You will see that as the infant will inhale, the tummy will expand and vice versa. I am not sure if that is a universal truth, and I haven’t had the chance to actually observe if it is true. But that is how we should be breathing when doing yoga.
As I started to practice regularly, I learned that there are actually many kinds of pranayama (“control of breath”) and there’s really no single answer to what is considered the “proper” breathing in yoga. The optimal breathing pattern really depends on the type of practice. For instance, in hot yoga, we’re are instructed to use sheetali or cooling breath which aims to reduce the body temperature. This actually has a different effect than our topic for today, ujjayi pranayama, a breathing technique associated with most asana (pose) practice and a technique that generates heat. It is sometimes called the “ocean breath” because of the sound made as the air passes through the throat with each inhalation and exhalation, both done through the nostrils. Within my eardrums, though, it strongly reminds me of gentle snoring.
Ujjayi is especially known for the soft hissing sound the breather makes by directing his/her inhales and exhales over the back of his/her throat. To learn how, try the following:
- Take an inhalation that is slightly deeper than normal, expanding your belly as you do so.
- With your mouth closed, exhale through your nose while constricting your throat muscles. I read somewhere that if you are doing this right, you should sound like Darth Vader from Star Wars. I agree with this observation.
As a beginner, you may start to exhaling the sound “haaaaah” with your mouth open. Once you get the hang of it, you can make a similar sound with your mouth closed, feeling the outflow of air through your nasal passages. A similar method is applied for the inflow breath, gently constricting your throat as you inhale.
5 Benefits of Ujjayi Breathing
- It is a balancing and calming breath
- Improves concentration in the physical practice, allowing you to remain in poses for longer periods of time
- Increases oxygenation and builds internal body heat, enabling you to maintain a rhythm to your practice
- Regualtes heating of the body
- Instills endurance that enhances a flowing practice by lending a meditative quality